The war between Nigeria and the Islamic State in West Africa (also known as Boko Haram) has cost more than 20,000 people their lives. Boko Haram’s terror campaign and the violent response by the Nigerian military and its Civilian Joint Task Force militia have forcibly displaced 2.2 million people. In fact, in 2014, Boko Haram overtook the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the world’s deadliest non-state militant organization, according to the Global Terrorism Index, accounting for 6,644 deaths.
The Nigerian government has admittedly made headway. Over the past year, the military (with American military support) has pushed Boko Haram militants out of the 19 local government areas it once controlled. Indeed, on December 24, 2015, president Muhammadu Buhari announced that Boko Haram had been “technically” defeated, a claim buttressed by the recent internal rift in the organization’s leadership. In support of this military success, the Nigerian government has also established a rehabilitation and reintegration camp for an estimated 800 Boko Haram defectors.
But questions remain over whether Nigeria can truly reintegrate Boko Haram defectors or its victims into local communities, and whether the government’s new rehabilitation program will succeed. Data from a recent ORB International survey conducted inside Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeast Nigeria and the “birthplace” of Boko Haram, demonstrate that community reintegration faces serious challenges. Aside from the uncertain impact of disarmament and reintegration programming in general, communities in northeastern Nigeria have been unwilling to accept former Boko Haram members and supporters, or even its victims. This has serious implications for the reintegration campaign in Nigeria and in other countries affected by militant religious organizations.
The July 23 survey found that an overwhelming majority of Maiduguri residents would refuse to work with former Boko Haram members, even on projects designed to benefit their entire communities. While 94 percent of people surveyed rejected Boko Haram’s ideas and actions, 79 percent said they would not work with repentant Boko Haram fighters. Moreover, 55 percent of Maiduguri residents said they doubt current fighters would actually leave Boko Haram if they were offered the opportunity to do so safely—numbers that point to a serious gap between local acceptance and the public goal of reintegrating former Boko Haram members.
Several challenges stand in the way of successful reintegration. First, religious disputes may not be easily adjudicated. Islam is a core component of life in northern Nigeria, and Sharia law has been part of the formal legal system in Borno since 1999. According to a 2010 International Crisis Group report, the local Muslim community viewed Sharia as a way of achieving a just and less corrupt society.
Boko Haram has therefore relied on a specific interpretation of the Quran to justify its use of violence, and as a result Maiduguri residents view the group’s members as wicked, violent, and ungodly. In fact, both men and women interviewed by ORB reported that they do not believe Islam teaches violence or that Quranic verse can be used to justify Boko Haram’s actions—a core tension that may undermine the reintegration of demobilized fighters. Even if they publicly reject Boko Haram’s ideas, it is not clear their communities will believe or accept their repudiation.
Secondly, reintegrating abducted women and girls will be a critical sticking-point. Amnesty International reports that an estimated 2,000 women and children have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2014. More than 100 of these women have undertaken suicide bombing missions since June 2014. In 2015 alone, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for 86 suicide bombings, 21 of them carried out by girls under the age of 18. Put simply, kidnapped women as well as women sympathetic to the group have taken up Boko Haram’s militant cause. Women in Nigeria are used for suicide attacks because they can more easily avoid detection prior to attacks (they are harder to search due to Islamic law) and can hide weapons more discreetly. In fact, ORB data indicate that more-educated women are more likely to believe violence is justified to maintain a community’s culture or traditions. Maiduguri residents fear that returning women and girls who have been exposed militant religious dogma may continue to spread Boko Haram’s message of violence, even if the organization is militarily defeated.
Similarly, reintegrating women and girls who have been sexually abused by members of the organization will be difficult. Women and girls who return to their communities pregnant or with out-of-wedlock children born as a result of sexual violence face ostracism that can rip families apart. The stigma these returning women face can further damage the social structure of already-traumatized communities. In areas affected by joblessness and poverty, women rejected by their families and lacking in material or social support could place significant strain on what little government infrastructure exists. This can have long-ranging effects on community stability, sexual and gender-based violence, as well as recruitment into new militant movements.
Thirdly, demobilized Boko Haram fighters will have to reintegrate into communities that include local militia members who made up the Civil Joint Task Force (CJTF). The threat of violence from these vigilantes, and the fact that Nigeria may integrate some of them into its regular military (further legitimating their actions), may hinder peaceful reintegration and reignite conflict as former members of the CJTF and Boko Haram are forced to live and work in the same communities.
Successfully reintegrating demobilized Boko Haram members requires the development of locally rooted and inclusive reintegration programs for both fighters and host communities. Programming cannot simply focus on defectors; it must also include women and children affected by the conflict, former CJTF members, and local community leaders. This is the only way to reclaim a common sense of community, as well as a common conception of Islam.
At a minimum, a focus on community engagement will help kick-start a dialogue on competing interpretations of Islam, and how they might co-exist. It could also form the backbone of new civil society organizations, including youth groups, child care, sports organizations, and community-based dispute mediators, that can support the reintegration process through intragroup communication.
ORB survey respondents also indicated that people joined Boko Haram not just for religious reasons, but because of poverty and joblessness. Job training is therefore essential, and reintegration programming should seek to put community members to work in locally sustainable businesses. Viable options include cash-for-work programs or the creation of cooperative and self-sustaining local businesses. A major failing of previous reintegration efforts in Sierra Leone and Liberia was that former fighters who were professionally trained had nowhere to apply their new skills, making them susceptible to recruitment into criminal gangs or other armed factions. Vocational schools for men and women must be developed and funded for people to learn skills for farming or setting up their own business.
Finally, Nigeria and other states faced with violent militant groups must address the relationship between poor economic returns on education and support for violence. Militant groups like Boko Haram appeal not just to uneducated, jobless, and poor segments of society; they also draw support from many people with sophisticated knowledge and skills who are otherwise economically underutilized. Just as some educated women in Maiduguri believe that violence is justified to maintain a community’s culture or traditions, Hezbollah is noted for its recruitment of educated and technically skilled fighters. And Hamas has used older and more educated fighters as suicide bombers for more important and difficult-to-attack targets. Furthermore, ISIS—and Al Qaeda in Iraq before it—has a notable number of former Iraqi military officers who were summarily dismissed from their positions following the 2003 Iraq War. In short, educated and skilled people who cannot find an income equal to their skill or level of education can be recruited into violent militant groups.
Rehabilitating and reintegrating former Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria (and other states affected by violence) is a community-wide endeavor. All segments of Nigerian society have been affected by Boko Haram, and members of many different social groups have joined the organization or have actively fought against it. This means that reintegration and reeducation programs must address all segments of society, not just former fighters. In Nigeria and beyond, defeating Boko Haram and other militant religious organizations demands tackling issues ranging from education and joblessness, to poverty, female radicalization, and competing forms of religious dogma. Nigeria has made slow but steady military progress in combating a Boko Haram, but in order to sustain this progress, careful attention must be paid to designing an integrated development approach for helping repentant extremist group members rejoin their communities, and society at large.